Writing a sophomore album is a tricky prospect, especially when a band has received a massive amount of buzz and critical praise in relation to their relatively short lifespan. Groups crumble all the time under the weight of these expectations – whether from themselves or from the media – and often are unable to recapture the magic of their first major release: the one that they had their entire lives to conjure, instead of just a few months between tours and promotion. The rapid pace of the blogosphere has magnified the effect of this pressure, churning out new acts by the day that are effective sonic replacements for any formerly beloved group that has failed to pass muster on a new release. Add in the democratic and anonymous nature of the Internet, which emboldens the opinionated to release the type of caustic criticism that most would hide in person, and it is understandable why many bands today would have some trepidation regarding the release of new material.
Local Natives seem like they may be aware of, if not certainly reactive to, these perils. In part, because their second release Hummingbird does not stray far stylistically from Gorilla Manor, the debut album that put the Los Angeles group on the map in 2010. The band’s chiming guitar parts and multi-part harmonies remain, as do their intricate percussion lines that often form the focal points of their studio compositions and their energetic live shows. For some bands, the re-creation of a uniform sonic profile reminiscent of a past release could be interpreted as an insurance against loss, a way to satisfy those listeners who are expecting more of the same from a band they already enjoy. For other groups, the preservation of the same style could simply signify their love of that particular sound, and their desire to wring it dry for all of its latent value.
It’s unclear into which of these camps, if either, Local Natives fall. What is clear on Hummingbird, though, is a subtle but noticeable unease with uninhibited expression that suggests that Local Natives may be playing it comparatively safe when confronting their fear of a sophomore slump. On many tracks, lead vocals are competing for space in the same frequency range as trebly guitar chords or piano. They often sound as if they have been moved into a comfortable space within the recesses of the mix, afraid to jump out fully on top of the instrumental parts that surround, instead of support, them. And while the ever-present harmonization, which was a key feature to the band’s sound on Gorilla Manor, is still present, it often obscures the central melody of the vocals. Such embellishment is concealment disguised as accentuation. When, as it often does, the percussion becomes the main focus, it feel as it is is just to remind listeners that, yes, they are in fact listening to a Local Natives album; come on, can’t you hear the drums? The slightly obscured nature of the vocals gives the impression that the band is stopping short of fully articulating themselves, as if in fear of what the consequences could be: a bad review, cries of heresy, a loss of band identity.
If it were not totally recognizable from the album mix, many of the band’s lyrics further the impression of a stunted expressiveness. On the single “Breakers,” Co-lead vocalist Kelcey Ayer sings, “waiting for my own words / to catch like I’m trying / to strike a match that’s soaking wet.” He attempts to make a connection through the only medium that he can, but words are awkward substitutes for action, as becomes clear on “Three Months” when he sings, “I am letting you know / I am ready / To feel you.” Mediating passion through language is not the same as actually touching somebody. Saying (“letting you know”) and doing (“feeling you,”) are different things. Local Natives want to reach out and express themselves, but also understand the jeopardy of that risk, as language, like music, can be so easily misinterpreted and denigrated.
It is no surprise, then, that the vocals on Hummingbird also contain a lot of sung interjections, “oohs” and “aahs,” that take the place of further lyrical development. When the album closer “Bowery” builds to a triumphant climax, Ayer does not sing distinct words, but rather syllables, noises, and open vowels that resist interpretation. When you don’t speak in a language common to your audience, you are beyond reproach. So it is with Hummingbird, an album filled with beautiful harmonies and lush textures that also maintains a safe distance from the listener, protecting itself, remaining guarded.
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